The kindness in her voice was undeniable the moment Jean Johnson answered the phone. I was particularly excited to interview Jean, now 99 years old, because her prolific watercolor career has spanned more than 80 years. With a gentle laugh, she claimed she’d still be painting “if I had enough space to spread out.” Unfortunately, due to a Covid outbreak in her senior living facility, Jean and I were not able to meet in person, but by no means did this hinder her willingness to share her life with me. And I was more than eager to learn from this wise and engaging woman.
Jean Johnson was born on March 14,1922 in Medford, Massachusetts. She was enamored with painting at an early age and was fortunate to have parents who supported her creativity. “I just loved painting and when I was in grade school, my parents signed me up for art lessons.” Every class further developed her skills and before long she was on her way to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
It was 1943, and while Jean was developing her artistic skills, many of her friends were already married and starting families. With graduation on the horizon, marriage was not in her immediate plans, even though she had already met her future husband, Bob. Instead, Jean followed the advice of one of her favorite professors: “There is a big world out there; you must see it.” And that she did.
Jean’s first real experience with travel was right after college, when she took a trip to Europe with 15 other classmates. Bob was ready to get married, but soon learned he would have to wait, as Jean reflects: “I didn’t want to just waste my degree without getting it underway before I got married. Marriage is great and all, but I wanted to make use of my education.” With this mindset, Jean explored many countries in Europe and was able to be in the presence of the art she studied in her textbooks, making the trip “a life-changing experience.”
It was not the norm for women in the 1940s to be off and traveling the world sans husband. It takes an independent and adventurous soul to reject societal expectations and pursue one’s passion, especially if you’re a woman! Jean’s will to practice what she loved continued through the rest of her career.
After some extensive travel and with a few illustration jobs underway, Jean and Bob married and welcomed two children into the world. While tending to a household may have consumed Jean’s time, it did not stop her art career. Bob supported Jean so she continued painting, mostly commissioned pieces. “Many people wanted me to paint their homes to have a memory of where they lived and raised their family.” Her artistic prowess spread through word of mouth and soon she was greatly in demand.
In addition to her commissioned and personal works, Jean illustrated children’s books, record labels, Christmas cards, brochures, instruction manuals during WWII, and magazine advertisements. She even illustrated one of the first record albums of “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer!” Her choice to develop a career prior to the demands of raising a family proved to be a wise idea.
Inspiration for Jean’s personal artwork came from moments she captured while experiencing life. She preferred to be in front of her subjects (plein air style) and then photograph them to help with small details. “I never copied from photos. Rather, they were there for reference.” Her paintings range from everyday lobster trappers in Florida to the majestic Matterhorn of Zermatt to the colorful skaters on Evergreen Lake. Whatever captured her attention, she would paint with a focus on nature and wilderness. People often approached her while painting and offered to purchase her work.
Having lived on the East Coast most of her life, Jean moved to Evergreen about 25 years ago (after her husband passed) to be with her son and family. She made quite a name for herself in these quiet mountains by becoming a member of the Evergreen Artists Association and creating spectacular watercolor paintings of local historic locations such as The Humphrey House, Alderfer Barn, and The Little Bear. Her son, Eric, comments, “She is very interested in the history of the areas that she paints and does a lot of research to be accurate. For example, the Troutdale painting in Evergreen where most people don’t even realize that such an historic resort existed.” Jean spent days or weeks researching places before she captured them on canvas.
It was a privilege and an honor to interview Jean Johnson; I have always embraced learning from my elders as I feel they have important wisdom to pass on. I was enlightened by how one can flourish and grow from a strong marriage chock-full of compromises, sacrifices and support. Also, Jean’s life reminded me that we all have a story and obstacles to overcome—it’s how we express our narrative that carves the path for our lives. For over 80 years, Jean Johnson has expressed herself through painting, and our world is a more beautiful place because of it.